Skift Take

The future for Amtrak looks bright. If only it can deliver the trains Americans want.

With billions of dollars to expand passenger rail included in President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, more Amtrak trains are on their way. Just not anytime soon.

“It’s going to take quite some time,” Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner said Friday at Amtrak’s annual board meeting. “You’ll start to see some improvements quickly — others will take half a decade, a decade still depending on the size and scope.”

“It’s a really exciting moment for all of us but one that will take patience, perseverance, and continuity,” he continued.

DJ Stadtler, executive director of Virginia Passenger Rail Authority, is counting on them. “If you put the trains in place, people will come,” he said.

After adding one additional train each to Norfolk and Roanoke last year, the state saw post-pandemic rail ridership soar. The number of people riding to Norfolk doubled compared to 2019, and Roanoke numbers jumped nearly 50%. Not shabby for two markets that only have three and two daily trains, respectively.

The story is much the same in North Carolina. The head of the state’s rail division, Jason Orthner, said Friday it forecasts a 20-25% ridership jump next year over the record high in fiscal 2023.

“Folks are really using what we’re calling the starter kit of passenger rail service in North Carolina,” Orthner said, referring to the state’s Piedmont line between Charlotte and Raleigh.

Amtrak Expansion Takes Time

Amtrak estimates it takes at least 3.5 years to implement upgrades to existing corridors and add more frequent trains.

Building entirely new lines — for example, Colorado’s planned Front Range corridor connecting Colorado Springs, Denver, and Fort Collins — will take as many as 12 years.

And that timeline starts only after the federal government awards funds from the infrastructure law. Amtrak Vice President of Nicole Bucich said they expect the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to announce funding awards for new and expanded corridors “soon.”

Amtrak’s proposed Connects U.S. expansion was unveiled in 2021 as a blueprint for funds from Biden’s infrastructure law. (Amtrak)

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law included $66 billion for passenger rail, the largest federal investment in U.S. history. Of that funding, $36 billion was allocated to corridor development. While much is expected to go to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor — the busiest passenger rail line in the U.S. — there are still billions up for grabs for new passenger corridors elsewhere.

The lag is not unique to Amtrak. It took privately-owned Brightline more than a decade to realize its plan of frequent, fast passenger trains between Miami and Orlando. The first section, between Miami and West Palm Beach, opened in 2018, six years after the plans were announced. The second section, to Orlando, opened this September.

Bightline hopes to secure infrastructure law funds for its planned high-speed line between Las Vegas and Southern California.

Delayed Acelas and Other New Trains

Amtrak faces capacity problems even when the tracks are ready for trains. Its second-generation Acela trains are years behind schedule and not expected to enter service until late 2024. They were expected in 2021 and, in preparation, Amtrak parked a fifth of the existing Acela fleet. That decision has left it short of capacity on the busy Boston-New York-Washington, D.C., route until the new Acelas finally enter service.

In a November report, the Amtrak Inspector General highlighted issues with the computer model for the new trains as well as production defects that were delaying their entry into service. The report found that Amtrak’s plan to introduce the new Acela trains next year an “optimistic timeframe.” And it noted that, without better management by Amtrak of its acquisition of new trains and engines, further delays were likely.

The new Acelas seat about a quarter more passengers, a much-needed capacity increase on the Northeast Corridor where infrastructure constraints limit Amtrak’s ability to add more trains.

New engines and passenger cars for Amtrak’s many other corridor trains may also be late. The Airo, as these trains are known, are due to enter service in 2026 on the Cascades route that links Portland, Ore., Seattle, and Vancouver. However, the Inspector General in December 2022 estimated that design changes to the trains could delay deliveries by as much as 10-13 months.

Amtrak Will Add Some New Trains Next Year

Amtrak is optimistic about the year ahead. Ridership, which was down 12% from 2019 levels at 28.6 million during the year ending in September, is forecast to exceed pre-pandemic levels by about 1%. That would equal roughly 32.8 million trips.

The increase in ridership will be driven by the continued recovery in traveler numbers across Amtrak’s network, as well as the full restoration of service on certain key corridors. For example, a nine-month disruption to Pacific Surfliner service — Amtrak’s second busiest corridor — between Los Angeles and San Diego last year due to coastal erosion lost the railroad an estimated 1 million passengers in fiscal 2023, executives said.

Amtrak also hopes to add some new service. Two additional Cascades trains — two more than before the pandemic — begin running on December 11. A new Gulf Coast corridor between New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., is expected to open in 2024. The line last saw passenger service in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina damaged tracks. And Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin plan to launch a new daily train, dubbed the Great River, connecting Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul next year.

However, both the new Gulf Coast and Great River trains have been in the works for years. That only confirms Gardner’s statement that new passenger rail lines take years to complete.

North Carolina and Virginia, for their part, continue to work towards expanding their own Amtrak networks. Several major projects are underway, including a new rail bridge over the Potomac River between D.C. and Virginia, and a new passenger rail corridor between Raleigh and Richmond known as the “S-Line.”

The former will allow Virginia to more than double the number of trains into and out of D.C. everyday, and the latter will shave more than an hour off trains service between the two state capitals.

Neither the North Carolina or Virginia projects, however, are expected to open before 2030.


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Tags: amtrak, Brightline, ground transportation, trains

Photo credit: Amtrak's second-generation Acela trains are three years late and not expected to enter service until late 2024. Amtrak

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